The 9-11 Inquiry Seems a Lot Like the Pearl Harbor Inquiry--With One Big Difference

Roundup: Media's Take

Edward Epstein, in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 28, 2004):

The special committee formed to investigate what the president called an"unprovoked and dastardly attack" on the United States waded deep into controversy, interviewed dozens of witnesses and produced a 10 million-word record.

It issued a final report, blaming many involved in U.S. national security for failing to do their jobs and recommended sweeping changes to prevent a similar attack in the future.

In many ways, this sounds like the current bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which is due to report by late July. But it's the tale of Congress' Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, which in 1945-46 conducted the last of a host of inquiries, and the most complete, into Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of the U.S. Pacific fleet in Hawaii.

The similarities between the reports of the two commissions are striking. If a reader substitutes the words"Sept. 11" for"Pearl Harbor," at times the voluminous final report of the Pearl Harbor inquiry can induce a serious case of deja vu, raising the question of how much a nation caught napping in 1941 -- and again 60 years later -- has really learned.

"The committee has been intrigued throughout the Pearl Harbor proceedings by one enigmatical and paramount question: 'Why, with some of the finest intelligence available in our history, with the almost certain knowledge that war was at hand, with plans that contemplated the precise type of attack that was executed by Japan on the morning of December 7 -- why was it possible for a Pearl Harbor to occur?'" the final report asked.

The committee's report told a tale of complacency, poor communications between government agencies and officials' stubborn refusal to contemplate the seemingly impossible, even though an attack on Pearl Harbor had been the subject of military war games.

Flash forward to 2004, and the 10-member bipartisan commission has heard what previous inquiries into the Sept. 11 attacks learned -- that the FBI and CIA failed to share information with each other or within their own agencies, that investigators in the field were frustrated in getting their concerns heard by higher-ups, that Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush might not have done all they could to pursue al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and that virtually everyone ignored indications that commercial planes could be hijacked and used as flying suicide bombs.

"We were drowning in a sea of intelligence both times," said Stanley Weintraub, author of"Long Day's Journey Into War: Pearl Harbor and a World at War."

"It was a matter of connecting the dots," he added.

The intelligence failure was much greater on Sept. 11 because"there were rather specific threats and the FBI knew of people training to fly planes, but not land them or take off," said Weintraub, a professor emeritus of history at Penn State University.

In contrast, Washington knew in 1941 that Japan was planning military action somewhere in the vast Pacific because Tokyo's diplomatic code had been broken. But no specific intelligence about the attack on Pearl Harbor was captured. Despite that, on Nov. 27, 1941, the commanders at Pearl Harbor, Navy Adm. Husband Kimmel and Army Gen. Walter Short, were sent a"war warning."

A series of inquiries that began just days after the attack found that the two didn't do enough to prepare for the attack that eventually killed 2,395 Americans and wounded 1,178.

In the face of the warnings,"the Japanese attack was a complete surprise to the commanders and they failed to make suitable dispositions to meet such an attack. Each failed properly to evaluate the seriousness of the situation. These errors of judgment were the effective causes for the success of the attack," the joint inquiry said. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sacked the two men days after the attack.

In interim reports and questioning by members, the current commission has been highly critical of the FBI and CIA, but it isn't clear yet what the panel's final report will say about the agencies or their leaders. The 1945-46 inquiry panned the government's performance before Dec. 7 but went out of its way to praise top leaders.

"The president, the secretary of state and high government officials made every possible effort, without sacrificing our national honor and endangering our security, to avert war with Japan," the report said.

As has happened since Sept. 11 with the criticism of Bush, conspiracy theories about what Roosevelt might have known before the attacks surfaced after Pearl Harbor and have become a cottage industry ever since.

Stanford historian David Kennedy, in his book"Freedom from Fear, The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945," had a simple explanation for such theories after Pearl Harbor, one that could just as easily apply to Sept. 11, 2001.

"Conspiracy theories proliferate, as they often do in the face of the improbable," he wrote.

The Pearl Harbor congressional inquiry dealt with the theories head-on.

"The committee has found no evidence to support the charges, made before and during the hearings, that the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of war or the secretary of Navy tricked, provoked, incited, cajoled or coerced Japan into attacking this nation in order that a declaration of war might be more easily obtained from the Congress," the report said.

One big difference between today and the 1940s is that none of the Pearl Harbor inquiries, which included a 1942 commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, ever asked Roosevelt to appear before them, on or off the record.

In contrast, after protracted wrangling, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are scheduled to appear Thursday before the Sept. 11 commission in a private White House session."Roosevelt was such a Godlike figure," Weintraub said, that no one would think to question his judgment.

Since FDR had died in April 1945, the joint inquiry couldn't have questioned him anyway. In an arrangement that appears positively quaint by today's standards, the inquiry allowed Grace Tully, FDR's secretary, to go through White House files and"furnish the committee all papers in these files for the year 1941 relating to Japan, the imminence of war in the Pacific and general Far Eastern developments," it said.

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